Set it and forget it. Work smarter with automated methods

Staff shortage, sustainable operations, flexibility in the laboratory. What are the challenges in today's lab and where are we headed in terms of working smarter in the future?


In a world that is increasingly focused on growth, one topic that always crops up when we talk about laboratory efficiency is turnaround time (TAT). But is it simply a question of being able to test faster?

We spoke to Associate Director, Mark Dilbeck from Eurofins about current challenges and trends in the laboratory and discussed how automated laboratory solutions such as the recently launched Kjeltec™ 9, can minimize the need for skilled labor and free up operators to do other tasks.

“I would say that testing faster is not the point. I think getting good quality results in and meeting the documented TAT time frame is more important. If you try and go too fast. I think you're going to run into more problems. So faster, no. But meeting, your target demands is very important.” According to Mark Dilbeck, TAT is all about growing your business, staying competitive and being able to deliver a good product on time and in this context being reliable is key. “Clients are looking for the results in that time frame, otherwise there's a possibility that they could go elsewhere.”


It is commonly known that consumers today have become increasingly aware of food safety, food authenticity and nutritional value. In Mark Dilbeck’s experience this trend doesn’t directly impact day to day work in the laboratory but is something that food producers are obviously very concerned with. Being able to deliver reliable results, on time is an essential part of the services offered to food producers by laboratories such as Eurofins. “As long as they get the results on time, they're reliable and they can deliver what they need for their clients,” he explains.

Automated operations are the way forward

Since Covid, staff shortage has been a challenge that has impacted many laboratories. With laboratory services being heavily reliant on complex wet chemistry processes, requiring a lot of resources from highly trained operators, staff issues make daily operations very vulnerable.


“Hiring people has been very hard, so the Kjeltec™ 9 Autosampler has opened our eyes a little bit to the potential of, just kind of setting it and forgetting it, and using those technicians in the other areas.” Thankfully, the staff shortage problem has improved in 2022 but having the flexibility to move people around is a significant improvement, explains Mark Dilbeck.


In a manual set-up, if customers are requiring more detailed testing such as a vitamin test that can take four or five days, this takes time and resources from standard tests. “If our technicians aren't working on vitamins and they're running proteins, then vitamins get left behind. That's just one example. But with the Kjeltec 9 Autosampler, we're able to, just put a set on and then that person can go and run vitamins. So now, all our tests will be done on time."

One thing is setting it and forgetting it, as Mark calls it, but you still need to keep an eye on your operations. “If there is an error that comes up, then we want to know about it so that we can address it immediately, or else your machine is going to be down without you knowing it for 20, 30 minutes before you check on it again.”

With Kjeltec 9, this problem is solved thanks to a notification service that sends an alert to staff working elsewhere on other tasks, making it a good supplement to automated batch handling using the Kjeltec 9 Autosampler. “I believe that if we're going to be using an autosampler, we're going to need to be notified. That's something that I would really like to try out,” says Mark Dilbeck.

Another challenge is the tightening of regulations and demands for traceability and accreditation. The days of simply marking incoming samples with a marker and manually matching and registering sample IDs with test results, are long gone. Besides being time consuming, this type of process is vulnerable to human error and no longer matches modern accreditation standards.

“For our ISO accreditation we've had to implement labeling of all our samples, making sure that we can match those samples electronically and show that to an auditor. That has been a big challenge for sure,” explains Mark. “Now we have our EOL, where our clients are submitting samples and they're registering the samples through the EOL lab, the Eurofins online application that we offer.”

But with connected instruments such as the Kjeltec 9, automatic registering provides full confidence in your data management. Results are collected automatically from all your instruments and all your labs in one place for overview and traceability down to the finest detail using networking software. Automatic recording and upload of data significantly reduces the risk of error, enables full traceability of your sample parameters, and ensures that all data is safely stored in the cloud for future reference, reporting and audit purposes.

Confidence is key

Confidence is a key aspect when it comes to implementing an automated Kjeldahl system such as the Kjeltec 9. “If you want to walk away from it, you have to have confidence in it. Because we put a lot of time and effort into our sample prep, so we don't want to just throw that out on an instrument that's going to error out halfway through and wreck the whole set,” Mark explains. And of course, confidence covers a lot of aspects. For instance, knowing that your instruments are easy to use by anyone in the laboratory makes daily operations less reliant on trained staff.


For Eurofins, the Kjeltec 9 troubleshooting feature added an extra layer of confidence. An initial problem with the Autosampler, that meant the tubes weren’t entering the unit correctly, was solved using the Kjeltec troubleshooting software. While older models require manual adjustment of the racks for this type of problem, Kjeltec 9 enables users to calibrate the tubes via the screen. “FOSS told us how to troubleshoot that using the software, and that was nice to see, because we don’t really have too many errors anymore after we calibrated it.”


Another benefit that Mark highlights is the fact that you can run a lot of samples. “We have it going every day and we run probably 3 to 5 sets on it. 60 to 100 samples per day. And I know that we're a high throughput lab compared to some smaller labs. So, if we can run hundreds of samples through our lab without error, then a smaller lab could definitely run one set a day or one set a week without having to troubleshoot it too much,” he explains.


At the end of the day, you need to feel confident that your instruments will keep on running smoothly. Being able to troubleshoot errors quickly and having access to an instrument service agreement plays a huge part in that regard. But for any instrument, how you take care of it makes a real difference. For a busy laboratory where staff shortage can be an issue, keeping maintenance procedures simple and easy to perform is vital. “I think the cleaning routines are a lot better than the old Kjeltec. It kind of walks you through step by step, which is nice. It won’t let you move on until you do what it tells you. It actually walks you through it, which is a very nice feature,” explains Mark.


The road towards working smarter

Obviously, investing in new technology is a question of budget and timing. Based on their experience during the test phase, we asked Mark Dilbeck if automated technology could be the next step for a busy laboratory such as Eurofins. “More than likely,” Mark confirms.


“This is based on what we’ve seen so far, in the short time we've had this instrument. If it continues to be this good, then yes, it could be a solution for sure. Just knowing that it's out there and in the future, we could feel confident ditching our manual processes and going towards an automated solution. In that sense, it's very beneficial to show to my boss, and his boss, that, someday, this is probably the road that we're going to go down. And then that obviously helps with our FTE*problem. Or not problem, but if we wanted to cut back in, in the business sense, or if we have problems like we did during Covid, we could rely more on the instrumentation rather than on actual manual labor. And you know, you don't have to interview an instrument, you just buy it,” he concludes.

*full time equivalent



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